Is Oakland's Ground Game The Contrarian Fantasy Play? - Footballguys

The Raiders have drawn criticism for their off-season moves. Matt Waldman sees potentially effective contrarian angles--beginning with Oakland's ground game. 

Raiders owner Mark Davis and his new head coach Jon Gruden are the Dumb and Dumber of the NFL. They have the haircuts, and according to many fantasy analysts that I respect, they've earned the role for their off-season acquisitions:

The likes of Evan Silva, Jeff Radcliffe, Justis Mosqueda, and Sigmund Bloom on Twitter railing on the Raiders for moves that appear as if they are woefully behind the times have compelling points.
 
However, when many of fantasy football's major voices all agree, it's worthwhile to examine the contrarian view. Giving real credence to the opposing viewpoint can lead to embracing successes that most wrote off without consideration or avoiding debacles that most unquestionably embraced. 
 
Conventional wisdom in fantasy football is an oxymoron because once an idea becomes conventional in a competitive arena, it's no longer the safest strategy. Those who excel are the exceptional cases, and you can't be exceptional when you're following the masses. 
 
At this stage of the season, the Raiders offense is shaping up to become the unit where the conventional play is to avoid Oakland's skill players. Because of the dynamics of conventionality and contrarianism in a competitive environment, we should at least take a serious second look at the Raiders' players. 
 
And there are compelling arguments that Oakland's offensive players will be undervalued this year. This week, we'll profile the Raiders' ground game. 
 

Marshawn Lynch Still has it and Oakland will lean on it 

Lynch dealt with a back issue the season leading up to his retirement. After a year away, Lynch returned in 2017 and finished the year the No. 18 fantasy back in standard leagues. Lynch remained healthy the entire season, earning a one-game suspension for unsportsmanlike conduct. 

During the final seven weeks of 2017, Lynch earned RB1 fantasy totals as the No. 12 back in standard 12-team leagues with 121 carries, 568 yards, 3 rushing touchdowns, 14 receptions, and 108 yards.  Only three backs in the NFL earned more carries than Lynch during this span. 

However, Lynch was 17th among backs in carries during the first 10 weeks of 2017. Former head coach Jack Del Rio was cautious about using Lynch and didn't ramp up the workload until the Raiders were already in severe danger of elimination from the playoffs. 

Del Rio did not buy into using Lynch as the weapon he's capable of being for an offense. Now Del Rio is gone and Gruden appears all-in. 

And there's a good reason for Gruden committing. Lynch only got better as the season progressed, but even this fourth-down run on opening day is a great example of his agility, vision, and balance.  

 

M Lynch 4th down vs run blitz

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onSep 11, 2017 at 3:45am PDT

 

This trucking of Jurrell Casey is also a testament to Lynch's explosive power and quickness remaining intact from a year-long layoff. 

 

Beast Mode trucks J Casey.

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onSep 11, 2017 at 4:39am PDT

 

This is vintage Beast Mode. The biggest question about Lynch isn't whether he still has it but whether Oakland is prepared to use him like a bell cow. Based on the offseason decisions of the Raiders and an interview with one of its key acquisitions, I think the answer is yes. 

The intersection point for this answer is Doug Martin. The Buccaneers runner wore out his welcome in Tampa Bay, but when the Buccaneers offensive line had an effective game, Martin still looked like the top talent that he is

The decision for Oakland to acquire Martin speaks volumes to its intent as an offense. When the Raiders signed Lynch last year, it only had scat backs Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington on Oakland's depth chart.

Martin is an excellent redundancy plan for the Raiders that Oakland never had in 2017. With Martin, Gruden's offense can remain committed to the run if Lynch falters. Strictly in terms of skills, Lynch and Martin are one of the best 1-2 combinations on any running back depth chart in the league. 

Last year, Oakland also used its tight end Jared Cook as a lead blocker from an H-Back position with a lot of spread sets. Cook is a competent blocker in certain sets but he wins with finesse. Although Oakland's line is a physical bunch that remains intact for the 2018 season, the offensive alignments in 2017 didn't maximize the potential for a power running game.

This year, Gruden released Jamize Olawale and signed Keith Smith, a former linebacker-turned-fullback who was a special teams ace in Dallas. Olawale was a better runner and receiver than lead blocker. Smith will dig out tree roots if needed. 

Lynch's best seasons in the NFL came with a fullback as a significant part of the offense. In a story for Silver And Black Pride, Gruden essentially described Lynch as the feature back. When asked about his role in the same article, the author dropped some worthwhile information about the Buccaneers offensive line before Martin answered a question about his usage in Oakland. 

The blocking starts up front with the Raiders having one of the league’s best lines and extends to that of blocking tight ends and full backs; positions the Raiders have also added in the past couple days of free agency.

The past couple years, Martin has struggled with injuries and an an offensive line that had one of the lowest yards before contact averages in the league (1.71) according to Pro Football Focus figures. Martin figures to get more space with the Raiders’ elite interior line than he did in Tampa and as he said that also played a role in why he wanted to be in Oakland.

It gives him his best chance of rebounding from consecutive seasons in which he averaged just 2.9 yards per carry. Quite a departure from the 2015 season in which he surpassed 1400 yards and was named All Pro.

Most of his career, Martin was the featured back. In Oakland he is likely to take a backseat to Marshawn Lynch.

“Marshawn’s a great back,” said Martin. “He’s definitely made his mark in this league and whatever role that they want me to play, I’m willing to play it. I’m not sure how many carries I’ll be getting and how many carries we’ll be splitting, but whatever I need to do to help the team, I’m gonna do it.”

One of Martin's greatest problems in Tampa Bay that forced the team to lose patience with him is that he tried too hard to make big plays when the offensive line struggled to open the intended creases. Although Peyton Barber lacks the caliber of Martin's talent, he and Jacquizz Rodgers were more dutiful at creating yards with efficient decisions and not losing discipline as the line lost its effectiveness.  

Martin will get carries this year, but he's essentially the insurance that Oakland can pound the ball in ways that didn't fit the profiles of Richard and Washingon. Look for Lynch to be the feature back with Martin as the change of pace and insurance policy for Lynch. 

The bigger question is...

Will it work in 2018?

The base defense in the NFL is the nickel front—four linemen, two linebackers, and a nickel defensive back (usually a cornerback). This base unit accounts for the proliferation of three- and four-receiver sets. Linebackers are lighter and faster to win in nickel units.

Safeties also have more range and less bulk than their predecessors. The in-box safeties are less common in the NFL since the early 2000s.

The best players on most team defenses are those suited for nickel personnel as described above. There isn't a lot of money invested in players who are great box safeties. Defenses aren't stacked with big linebackers who can withstand an onslaught of a committed power running game. 

In this sense, Gruden and the Raiders are attacking the inherent weakness of recent trends with NFL defenses in the same way that Super Bowl teams Seattle, San Francisco, Baltimore succeeded between 2012-2015.

This isn't ancient NFL history. These teams took the contrarian route and overpowered the opposition:

Contrarian Super Bowl Contenders 2012-2015

Team Rushing Yards Y/A Attempts
2012 Ravens 12th 11th 12th
2012 49ers 7th 4th 3rd
2013 49ers 3rd 11th 3rd
2013 Seahawks 4th 12th 2nd
2014 Seahawks 1st 1st 2nd
2014 49ers 9th 4th 4th
2015 Seahawks 3rd 7th 3rd

The Ravens had top-10 figures in 2011 in each of these categories. 2011 and 2012 were the final two years where Ray Rice was a productive and relevant figure on the field. Baltimore also had an excellent lead blocker in fullback Vonta Leach

The 49ers and Seahawks were fullback-oriented teams and they were the two most relevant teams in the NFL between 2012 and 2014. What's most important isn't the Yards Per Attempt but Yards and Attempts. Running the ball for these teams was about intent and volume. The efficiency matters to a degree but it doesn't have to be top tier if the team can remain in game scripts to continue running the ball consistently. 

During this time, the hybrid player revolution on offense was in full swing and defenses were already adjusting. According to Pro Football Focus the percentage of pays where NFL defenses used at least five defensive backs increased for 43.4 percent in 2008 to 63.4 percent in 2015. Between 2012 and 2015, defenses were already in nickel for a majority of its snaps and nearly two-thirds of the time in 2014 and 2015. 

Although Marshawn Lynch performed well and the Raiders offensive line scored well as a unit, the team was 30th in Attempts, 25th in Yards, and 13th in Yards Per Attempt. Oakland had the tools but lacked the commitment. 

In theory, if Oakland commits and succeeds with the run, there will be a lot less pressure on the Raiders defense, and the unit can be the aggressor with its capable pass rush. In practice, the Raiders lacked the upper-echelon pass defenses of the 49ers and Seahawks—Oakland was in the bottom-third of passing defenses last year.  

Most will examine Oakland's bottom-feeder defensive production allowed and conclude that the Raiders defense won't allow the Raiders offense to remain committed to the run. However, this isn't an unassailable truth.

The Ravens were in the bottom-third of passing defenses during its Super Bowl season. It's not an automatic that Oakland's passing defense must significantly improve to help the ground game thrive. If the Raiders can dictate on offense, build early leads, and force opponents to play catch-up, Oakland can still thrive. 

In fact, the Raiders can give up a lot of yards through the air and still become a top ground game and a winning team. If Oakland can take early leads, control the ball, and create favorable game scripts that force opposing offenses to play in catch-up mode, Oakland's defense will look different when playing with a lead.

Last year, Oakland was behind by more than a touchdown by the end of the half or by the beginning of the fourth quarter in six of its nine losses. This alters game scripts. Here's a comparison of Lynch's 2017 workload and production by quarter versus the average of the top-5 fantasy backs:

Average of Top-5 Fantasy RB Stat Splits (2017) 

Top-RB Avg 2017 QTR Att. Yds. Y/A Rush TDs Targets Rec. Rec Yds. YPC Rec TDs Fpts
  1st 67.8 313 4.6 2.4 20.2 14.6 122 8.4 0.6 61.5
  2nd 57.6 260 4.5 3.2 32.8 23.6 226.2 9.6 1.2 75
  3rd 67.2 294.2 4.4 2.2 21.4 16.8 166.2 9.2 1.2 66.4
  4th 75 337.2 4.4 1.8 21.2 17.4 160.8 9.2 1.4 69

The only places where Lynch was within the same range as the top-5 fantasy backs were attempts and yards during the first quarter of games and his yards per average throughout the game. His yards-per-carry average was actually better than the average of the top-5 running backs in the first quarter of games. 

Marshawn Lynch's 2017 RB Stat Splits

Marshawn Lynch 2017 QTR Att. Yds. Y/A Rush TDs Targets Rec. Rec Yds. YPC Rec TDs Fpts
  1st 62 298 4.8 1 5 3 0 0 0 35.8
  2nd 49 212 4.3 2 8 5 43 8.6 0 37.5
  3rd 51 226 4.4 2 8 4 39 9.8 0 38.5
  4th 45 194 4.3 2 10 8 70 8.8 0 34.5

Oakland's line and running back was good enough to dictate to opposing defenses last year. However, the play calling, the defense, and the passing game weren't good enough to let the Raiders dictate the game with the run.

If the Raiders can decrease the number of first-half and fourth-quarter deficits, Lynch and Doug Martin have potential to become excellent contrarian fantasy plays in 2018. Lynch is leaving draft boards as the 36th running back taken in the early 8th round and Martin is going in the middle of the 13th round as the 57th running back.

The risk on these two is minimal, Gruden's intent to use the run game is strong, and the offense has the tools to make it happen. The key will be the offense taking pressure off the defense early enough that the defense can play and pressure opponents with leads. 

Next week, we'll examine Gruden's acquisitions of Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant, why what they were to their previous teams should remain in the past, and why it makes their immediate future potentially brighter than characterized.